Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"
One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.


Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty
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7 thoughts on “Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

  1. 1

    In general I think many Americans have an anarcho-capitalist view of rights in general, though. Basically, rights are earned by money. It’s not that uncommon for people to suggest that the poor don’t have privacy rights or reproductive rights, for instance.

    1. 1.1

      That’s a really interesting point. I think it applies well to both privacy rights and reproductive rights (as well as a right to beauty, if there is one), but I’m not sure if it would apply to, say, first amendment rights. (Though it CERTAINLY applies to many of the other amendments…)

      1. I think it does apply to the First Amendment. Look at Citizens United, and the notion that money is speech in the political arena. More money = more speech, and to the people who can equate the two, it’s just an accident that some people have more money than others, not a fundamental inequity that needs to be redressed.

  2. 3

    [I]n the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity.

    I didn’t know that! That’s really interesting. I never thought about what people back then thought about acne, but I probably would’ve guessed they’d have considered it a trial to endure, or a reminder from God that one ought not be vain.

    It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples …

    It’s difficult for me, too, and I’m two more generations removed from the immigrant experience than you are. I had terrible acne, but my response to it was to have long bangs and wait until I outgrew it. My parents would not have had the money to send me to a dermatologist, and I would never have asked them to, partly because I had known since I was a child not to ask for things that cost a lot of money, and partly because I would die of shame before I would voice such worries to them.

    I like the Brazilian notion that everyone deserves to feel good, but for me feeling good has nothing to do with fitting other people’s idea of what’s attractive. Indeed, I feel best about myself when I am farthest from conventionally attractive. I like being invisible, and I like moving through the world in a large, powerful, not-obviously-female body. I get the sense that beauty norms are even more hegemonic in Brazil than they are here, and while I’m not sure that would bother me, I’d probably find it annoying.

  3. 4

    I never had much sociology or history in college, but I like to read both for fun. My favorite moment of realizing how much beauty norms can change within the same culture over the years came from reading fiction, though.

    I was reading Villette, a novel about a very shy, bookish young woman named Lucy Stone who works as a teacher in a French boarding school. Charlotte Bronte wrote it, and Lucy Stone has quite a few things in common with Jane Eyre. Anyway, in one scene Lucy is at an art exhibition, and she’s looking at a contemporary painting of Cleopatra. She’s looking at it with the very similar cocktail of feelings I have when I look at a picture of a woman considered beautiful today: “I look nothing like her” and all that follows from that, some of which is good and some of which is bad. The kicker, though, is that Lucy Stone is petite and slender. The artist’s conception of Cleopatra is very large; tall and fleshy, with visible musculature. Lucy Stone thinks in her mind, “she must have weighed fourteen stone”, which is about what I weigh!

    It was quite the reversal. I laughed and had to go read the section out loud to my mom.

  4. 5

    I can quite easily imagine “a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples,” especially if that parent had severe acne themselves. And one doesn’t ever outgrow severe acne because of the scars it tends to leave behind – both physical and psychological. I’m sure most people have seen someone who obviously had severe acne as a teenager/young adult as evidenced by the severe facial scarring. Then of course there is adult acne, which isn’t just a normal phase everyone goes through (for that matter some never suffer from acne and some have outbreaks so mild that you’d never guess they ever had acne). Also, I’m not so certain that acne is not connected to at least some aspects of poor health, such as immune system functioning, allergies, and diet. I’m not basing this on anecdotal evidence alone, but I do have some anecdotal evidence to proffer: I’m 43, but I still have acne from time to time, most commonly when I’m suffering from seasonal allergies (in one the worst cities for allergies in the nation!) and other situations in which my immune system is compromised, such as when I have a cold.

    I suffered from severe acne as an adolescent and my friends made fun of me. If my “real friends” would not have made fun of me, then I had no friends. Of course friends weren’t the only people to make fun of me. It was terrible. It made me hate my life even more than I already did. I thought I looked ugly as well and I certainly have never met anyone who found acne attractive. The overall attitudes of what acne “signifies” may have changed, but I don’t think it has, or ever will be considered, attractive. Eventually my mom took me to a dermatologist for treatment, my skin cleared up considerably, my confidence improved somewhat, and for the first time in my life, girls were not only not repelled by me, some even found me attractive. I wonder if acne problems are as severe today as in the past. If they are less severe, I’d venture a guess – just a guess mind you – that that might have something to do with parents taking their teenage children to a dermatologist or even just their PCP for some kind of treatment. It’s not all expensive and many (though not enough) people have insurance that will cover such treatment.

    We make superficial judgments about people based on their appearance (such as in the halo effect you mentioned). People look at things such as height, weight, hair and eye color, facial symmetry (or lack thereof), and yes, the clarity of ones skin. This is especially true when someone is considering another person as a potential mate, but, as in the halo effect, it applies to almost all other life areas. With regards to considering someone as a potential mate, we tend to make unconscious judgments about their physical prowess (height, weight, muscle mass) and their physical health (weight, facial symmetry, clarity of skin (or lack thereof), and the perhaps less evidenced – as in I’m not sure – wideness of a woman’s hips (meaning less chance of pregnancy complications – women today with very narrow hips usually have C-sections so as to not risk the health of the child whereas in the slightly more distant past too-narrow hips might mean the death or disfigurement of, or even brain damage to, the baby). Then there’s the oft-repeated: “large breasts and wide hips are a sign of fertility.” Wouldn’t any size breasts (on a women of course; moobs might indicate too many feminine hormones, not enough testosterone, and thus lower fertility in a man; ) though I don’t know that hormones levels affect sperm count and motility be a sign of fertility? Like I said, I’m less certain of these last sex-centric things I’ve mentioned things I’ve mentioned. The main point I wanted to make was that people’s attractiveness is based on, among all the other things, skin health. It’s shorthand for quickly assessing overall health (even if it is not necessarily accurate in many cases, I believe it is accurate in some cases). I’d add the caveat that the judgments of all of the above qualities (if they are indeed true) occur mostly at an unconscious, instinctive level.

    Main moral of my story: really bad acne is really bad for the individual suffering from it – and one most definitely suffers; not just from the affects on self esteem and the social repercussions of the perceived lack of attractiveness, acne is also very physically painful, especially when it’s so severe that ones entire face and/or back, chest and arms are covered, with some of the pimples being cystic acne – no matter what historical era it is.

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